Max Von Sydow – Five Farewells: Citizen X

For the longest time, Max Von Sydow was one of those perennial “faces” in film. You know, the ones who show up and make you go “Hey! That’s the guy from…” I’m speaking of my personal experience of course. As such, he was never someone that I was particularly looking for when I picked out movies at the video store, or took recommendations from one of my High School French teachers. For the life of me I can’t remember how we got into something of a contest – recommending movies to each other that had not seen theatrical release in Australia. The goal was to go obscure, but still give a hook to convince one another that the movie was actually worth watching.

She won, because the best film I ever managed to recommend to her was The Boondock Saints, whereas she was able to introduce me to


Citizen X

Year: 1995
Written and Directed by: Chris Gerolmo
Based on The Killer Department by Robert Cullen
Starring: Stephen Rea, Donald Sutherland, Joss Ackland, Imelda Staunton, Jeffery DeMunn and…Max Von Sydow.

This was, at the time I first saw it, the pinnacle of “Where do I know him from?” films. Somewhat ironically, this was also the film that moved old Uncle Max from “that guy who was in Needful Things and Flash Gordon“, and finally made me remember his name.

Not bad for about ten minutes of screen time.

Citizen X is an HBO dramatisation of the non-fiction book The Killer Department, by Robert Cullen. The story is of the “first” serial killer to terrorise Russia – more accurately the story of the men who caught him. “Oh” you may think, “so this is a period piece set in the 40’s or something?” No, this guy wasn’t caught until 1990, and if this film and the book it’s based on are to be believed, the authorities almost just let him walk away.

At it’s heart Citizen X is a reflection on the individuals struggle with bureaucracy, and the terrible effect that can have in greater society. The focus of the film is Viktor Burakov, played by Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, Still Crazy) – a forensic specialist who is tasked with investigating a troubling number of bodies that have been discovered in rural parts of the Russia. When he suggests that every one of them appears to show the same signs of violent murder, and are possibly all the victims of a serial killer, Burakov is informed by authorities that he is never to utter those words again.

Figure it out, yes. So long as you don’t figure out that it’s a serial killer.

That…is an American problem.

The Soviet Colonel Mikhail Fetisov is Burakov’s only true ally throughout the eight long years of his investigation. Played just the way you would expect by Donald Sutherland, Fetisov represents the powers-that-be, without being overly arrogant or fearful of his reputation. It was Sutherland’s part in the film that made me want to give it a shot in the first place.

That, and what I was told of the confession at the end.

So, trying to avoid spoilers here, if I’ve peaked anyone’s interest in checking this out. The film is, in addition to being a competent crime procedural, a fascinating deep dive into how bureaucracy can cripple the most vital of public services for the sake of reputation. Burakov is beset on all sides by superiors who threaten and cajole him for his suggestion that the USSR may have citizens as messed up as any other nation on earth. This refusal to accept the likely theories, and the interference from politicians and military, almost derails the investigation on multiple occasions.
When Burakov finally gets his man – we think – the authorities insist on being the ones to “break” him in interrogation. After hours, sorry…no, days of interrogation, they’ve gotten nowhere.

Enter Dr. Alexandr Bukhanovsky – our dear Uncle Max.

Where the modern portrayal of the Psychiatric expert has skewed towards, if not necessarily cool, confident, definitive and almost clairvoyant. They know everything about a person, along with how they will react to certain situations, even what they will say to certain questions. Think Vincent Donofrio as Robert Goren, or Morgan Freeman as William Sommerset: well read; articlate; infalible.
Max Von Sydow, when he first enters the room, looks like he might have walked in off the set of a different movie – one where he plays a doting yet forgetful grandfather who is supposed to be taking care of his daughters mischievous twins. He has no airs about him, nor any particularly great lines. He doesn’t even confront the Soviet heavy who has proven useless in soliciting a confession. The other characters have to do that for him.

When he finally confronts the suspect, one may expect an epic, psychological chess match between masters, or an expertly crafted dialogue from a writer wanting to prove their brilliance. There is none of this. Instead, Bukhanovsky awkwardly sits across from a suspected mass murderer, fumbles with his notes for far too long, and proceeds to read to this stranger a paper he once wrote about what he expected someone who killed a lot of people would be like.

When my teacher was convincing me to give this movie a try, this was the scene she described to me, and in much the same way as I have just done. Truthfully, it was not enough at the time to convince me to give it a go but after I did – and now, years later – that scene is the one burned into my mind. In a film already playing with audience expectations of the crime genre, Max Von Sydow caps it off perfectly by subverting once more the expectations of the type of person capable of bringing a psychotic and dangerous killer to heel.

I remember that moment, and from then on, I remembered his name.

Vale Max.


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